Back to History and Judgment


An important achievement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has been to help render the Question of Palestine more legible by releasing it from the framework of conflict resolution that has thus far dominated the peace process, the main official venue for the appearance of Palestine in the world. As the boycott practice spreads, it becomes increasingly apparent that Palestine is not a party to a conflict with Israel over an occupied territory to which there is a resolution based on compromise. Rather, what becomes clear is that the Question of Palestine consists in the occupation of Palestinian land, the expulsion of its people, and the subjugation of those who remained as citizens or subjects.

The Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott articulates these three dimensions partially by demanding equality, the return of the refugees, and an end to the occupation. Significantly, the practice of boycott does not shy away from supporting the Palestinian struggle in a world that demands their pacification through peace processes, conflict resolution frameworks, and self-rule projects; a world that assures itself, against Palestinian reality, that it has moved beyond colonial rule; and a world and an era crowded with individuals, organizations and states that actively assume the comforting gaze of neutral or conflicted observers.

The illegibility of the Question of Palestine is most evident in its reconfiguration as the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which is then contextualized in the “Arab-Israeli conflict.” In this contextualization, the history of Palestine emerges as part of a larger plot about warfare, occupations, and peace treaties between Israel and Arab states. Consequently, the colonization of Palestine, which was only in part accomplished by war, appears less central, injecting in the place of colonialism a story about occupation and conflict over territory between states. The main stages of the plot of this said conflict are more or less agreed upon by all narrators.

The plot begins at the end of the nineteenth century. Key elements include the following: the establishment of the Zionist movement in Europe; intensified Zionist immigration to and settlement in Palestine during the first half of the twentieth century, which the English colonial powers ruling over Palestine facilitated; conflict between Arab Palestinians and the Zionists over the land of Palestine, as well as the territorial aspirations of both groups; the Arab revolt against the Zionists and the British, leading up to the United Nations 1947 partition plan to split Palestine into a Jewish State (56%) and an Arab State (43%); the Zionists’ declaration of a state in May 1948; the war of 1948 that resulted in the occupation of 78% of Palestine, the expulsion of the majority of Palestinians there, and the extension of the new state into all of these areas.

What starts out as a conventional history of settler colonialism facilitated by the colonial power that took over Ottoman Palestine gradually transforms into a narrative about a conflict with Israel even prior to its occupying a place on our world map. The story of colonialism fades away as the colonizing power that has meanwhile taken the form of a state recounts history from the perspective of that form. Not surprisingly, then, internationally acclaimed novelist A. B. Yehoshua asserts without hesitation, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest-running conflicts in the modern era. If we mark its beginning at the start of Zionist settlement in Palestine in the 1880s, the conflict has been active, in blood and fire, for about 130 years.”  Yehoshua projects Israel back into history in place of colonization, which in turn is projected outside of history.

From 1948 on, the inter-state drama of the “Arab-Israeli conflict” only thickens: the war of 1956 waged by Israel, France and Britain against Egypt, and then the war of 1967 between Israel, Syria, Egypt and Jordan resulting in the second defeat of Arab countries and the occupation of the rest of the Palestinian territories (22%). And since then the plot continues with more wars between Arab states and Israel, as well as peace agreements, first with Egypt, then with Jordan, the declaration of a Palestinian state (twice, we may add), and later peace talks with the PLO.

The different stages of the plot are richer and more complex. What is significant, however, is the fate of the Question of Palestine once the medium for comprehending it is this historical plot of inter-state conflict and peace making. In the course of this history, as well as in the course of its telling, Zionist settlers lose their affiliation with settler colonialism and join the company of other states engaged in the normal state business of war, destruction, and occupation.

There is of course, no sharp distinction between colonization and occupation; colonization is carried out through the means of military occupation. And many of the governmental technologies of occupation intersect with those of colonization.  And yet precisely because of this affinity, a more adequate geopolitical-regional account would show the centrality of the wars of occupation in the region to both the colonial conquest of Palestine as well as to the attempt to normalize Israel as a non-colonial state.

These wars are at once the colonial birth site of Israel, and at the same time technologies of statecraft that distance it from its own coloniality: consider that it took the second territorial expansion of 1967 to stabilize Israel’s borders as those secured by the 1948 occupation. It is as if the excess of occupation normalizes previous moments of colonization by relegating what is deemed unacceptable to more recent episodes of expansion.

Only by highlighting the colonial process is it possible to adequately assess the meaning of Israel’s demand during the peace talks that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In a framework of occupation, Israel’s desire to be Jewish is its own business. It can be internally as exclusionary and discriminatory as it wishes to be, and it need not seek the recognition of Palestinians. For if they are indeed in some kind of an external conflict with Israel and have no constitutive claim over it, it should not so eagerly desire their bestowing of legitimacy upon the Jewish statehood project.

Nevertheless, this legitimation is pursued at least in part because at issue is not merely relations of occupation but of colonization. Far from the conflict with the Palestinians being external to Israel, the colonization of Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinians were from the start the grounds on which Israel was founded for the Jewish people, its condition of possibility, and the content that filled its Jewish statehood form. Because this statehood form is tied to coloniality and expulsion, it remains insecure in itself without the defeat of the colonized/the expelled either in the form of a destructive war or a peace treaty forcing recognition of the Jewish statehood form. The demand that the Palestinians recognize Jewish statehood forces them not only to forget the connection they have with Palestine, but also to approve of the Zionist colonial project that unfolded through their destruction, expulsion, displacement and substitution by other human beings. Is this not a demand for self-annihilation?

The refusal to view the Question of Palestine through the lens of colonialism and expulsion yields the greatest illegibility for Palestine when it intersects with a particular appropriation of the boycott call that limits its application to the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.  Consider an op-ed by Yossi Sarid, a former left-Zionist politician, published as part of his regular Haaretz column. Titled, “Yes to a Boycott,” it recounts Sarid’s refusal to drink wine made in a Hebron settlement, and to purchase SodaStream upon learning that it is manufactured in a settlement. He writes: ‘Israel is legitimate. About that there is no debate. Only its occupation is illegitimate. So yes to a boycott, in order to remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue.” By insisting on a line separating Israel from its practices in a geographic elsewhere in the 1967 occupied territories, Sarid removes coloniality from Israel and normalizes it as a healthy biological-political body. In the process he has to imagine that what is being boycotted is not Israel, but an entity that remains nameless.  He writes: “It’s not Israel, but rather its stepchild state that’s being threatened with a boycott.”

In his struggle to normalize Israel and disassociate it from occupation and colonization, Sarid goes as far as supporting a limited version of the boycott of settlement products, which he insists are not Israel, but its stepchild. This position, like several others, posits a gap between Israel and its practices, between the 1948 and the 1967 occupied territories. Ironically, then, the exclusive boycott of settlements produces the most normalization of Israel. It is as if Israel can purify itself of its own making and doings, and stand untouched outside of history, its own colonial history and present. We are accustomed to thinking that this position of exteriority to history reflects exclusion and subjugation as in the case of many indigenous groups labeled pre- or a-historical. But in this case, exteriority endows Israel with privilege and supremacy. BDS brings Israel back to the terrain of history and judgment.

Samera Esmeir is an associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

Samera Esmeir